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The Charles Burrell and Sons Showmans engine Wait and See with striking paint scheme

Line of showmans engines at the GDSF

The Iron Maiden a preserved Showman's Engine

A Showman's road locomotive or showman's engine is a steam-powered road-going 'locomotive' designed to provide power and transport for a travelling fair or circus. Similar to other road-going traction engines, showman's engines were normally distinguished by the addition of a full-length canopy, a dynamo mounted in front of the chimney, and brightly coloured paintwork with ornate decorations. The dynamo was used to generate electricity to illuminate and power various fairground rides. Although originally the ride's motion was powered by an internal steam engine, some later rides were driven direct from the showman's engine via a belt drive.

Showman's road locomotives were built in varying sizes, from relatively small 5, 6 and 7 NHP engines, right up to large 8 or 10 NHP engines. Probably the most popular design was the Burrell 8NHP single-crank compound design. These engines had a nominal weight from 5 ton upto 22 tons plus.


One of the earliest engines ordered directly from the manufacturers by a showman was a Burrell No.1451 Monarch, built in 1889. Before the advent of these showman's road locomotives all of the rides were drawn in transit by teams of horses, this was very labour-intensive, and substantially restricted the size of the rides.

Production of showman's engines tailed off in the late-20s, with the last Burrell 'Simplicity' being built by Garrett's of Leiston in 1930 (after Burrells had collapsed). The last showman's engine to be built was Fowler Supreme, one of the 'Super Lions'; it was completed for Mrs A. Deakin (who also bought Simplicity) in March 1934.

Characteristic features

In general, showman's road locomotives share much the same design and technology as other road-going traction engines; however, certain features set the showman's engine apart:

Ornate painting

Most were painted in bright colours; the Burrell standard was 'Lake Crimson' with 'Deep yellow' wheels. George Tuby's engines were distinctively painted Great Eastern blue with yellow wheels and lining. Other embellishments included elaborate scroll paintings, this was especially popular around the turn of the century. Typically the sideboards had the name of either the proprietor or of the ride the engines were working with picked out in gold.

Brass decoration

Typical Showmans engine twisted brass detailing

Most engines have simple steel rods for roof supports, but showman's engines employ a more flamboyant 'twisted' design usually of polished brass. Brass stars and other decoration were often mounted on the motion covers and water tanks. A few engines had Chrome poles & decoration in place of the Brass.


Fowler no. 14862 - Evening Star - Note extension chimney on roof and the dynamo at the front under the long canopy

This was driven by a belt from the engine's flywheel and powered the lighting on the rides and stalls. The power varied with the NHP of the engine, typically a smaller 'five horse' (5NHP) engine would have a small 110v Dynamo, with the larger scenic engines having a large 280v dynamo and smaller 80v 'exciter'.

Full-length canopy

Most road locomotives have some kind of roof or canopy fitted, covering the man stand (where the driver operates the controls) and the crankshaft area. The canopy of a showman's engine extends forward of the chimney to protect the dynamo from rain ingress. They were often fitted with a string of lights along the perimeter to enhance the effect at night.

Extension chimney

An extra tube is carried for extending the chimney when stationary. This tube could be between 6 and 8ft long depending on the size of the engine. The chimney tube is carried on purpose-made brackets on the roof. The extra length of chimney improves the draft through the fire, and reduces the risk of smoke and smuts being blown around nearby fair-goers.


Many of the scenic engines were built with, or at sometime had fitted, a large boom crane fitted to the tender. This was used for erecting the rides and moving items, such as gondola cars, from place to place.

Disk flywheel

Decorated disk flywheel of Fowler no. 14425 - Carry On

Most road locomotives were fitted with disc flywheels, the idea of this being if they encountered horses en route, the horse would be less startled by the spinning disc. This theory was pretty much ruined when showmen began to decorate the flywheels, worsening the startling effect. (it may also have been that a solid fly wheeel had more mass)


Showman's tractors

Showman's tractors were basically miniaturized versions of their larger counterparts. Many were constructed following government legislation increasing weight limits at seven tons, so at between 5 and 7 tons these engines were very popular. Again Burrell was a prolific manufacturer as was William Foster, but the market leader was probably Garrett's of Leiston with a showman's engine based on their popular 4CD tractor design.

"Scenic" engines

Scenic engines were perhaps the ultimate development of the showman's road locomotive. Built almost solely by Burrell's of Thetford (Fowler built just one experimental engine) these were developed for the heavier rides that were emerging. Basically a scenic engine has a second dynamo located behind the chimney, known as an exciter. This extra dynamo helped to start the heavy new scenic rides. The first engine to be built new as a 'scenic' was No. 3827 Victory. Supplied to Charles Thurston of Norwich in 1920, this engine is now preserved in the Thursford Collection in Norfolk.

Showman's steam wagons

Although less common than the tractors or larger locomotives, showman soon cottoned on to the idea of converting the conventional steam wagons for showland use. Foden's were probably the most popular choice, Burrell's only ever sold one wagon specifically built for a showman: no. 3883 Electra was built in 1921 for Charles Summers of Norwich, it was later sold to an operator in Plymouth, but was later destroyed in the Nazi Blitz of the city.


The most prolific manufacturer of these vehicles was Charles Burrell of Thetford Norfolk. Their later 8nhp engines were held in very high regard by their operators. Other major manufacturers included John Fowler of Leeds and William Foster of Lincoln. Other manufacturers made lesser ventures into the showman's engine market, these included;

Production figures[1]
Manufacturer No Built First (date) Last (date)
Aveling & Porter 2 1899 1905
Charles Burrell and Sons 207 1887 1930
Foden 10 1898 1910
Foster 68 1904 1934
Fowler 82 1885 1934
Garrett 5 1908 1909
Richard Hornsby & Sons 1 1887 1887
McLaren 16 1880 1910
Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies 2 1896 1908
Savage 5 1895 1909
Wallis and Steevens 13 1895 1915

A number of ex WD locomotives were converted in the 1920s to showmens spec by other companies or by the showmen themselves. Some existing showmens engines were stripped of the fittings after there life in showland was over and they were bought for road haulage or used as forestry tractors during the second World War.

Fowler B6 "Super Lion"

In the early 1930s when steam on the roads was in decline, Fowler's, under advice from Sidney Harrison of Burrell's produced four of the most sophisticated showman's road locomotives ever constructed. Incorporating many features of the popular Burrell design they were steam's finale. The first was No.19782 The Lion was built in March 1932 for Anderton and Rowland of Bristol, in April of the same year No. 19783 'King Carnival II' was supplied to Frank Mcconville of West Hartlepool. The third engine No. 19989 Onward was built for Samuel Ingham of Cheshire. The last of the four, and indeed the last showmans engine ever constructed was No. 20223 Supreme built in March 1934 for Mrs A.Deakin. Three of these engines survived into preservation, with Supreme and King Carnival II on road haulage duties for their last days in commercial use. Onward was the unlucky engines being cut up in 1946, however plans for a replica to be built have been suggested.


As well as genuine factory-built engines, a great number of engines were converted from conventional road locomotives to full showman's engines by both the showmen, and by private concerns, like Openshaw's. Most of the converted engines were ex-War Dept Fowler's and Mclaren's. Others were powerful 'contractor's' type road locomotives, many of these were a cheap and powerful alternative to factory models, and they were plentiful following WW1.

As well as full conversions showmen, were also experts in adding extra dynamos, or fitting their own designs of crane and canopies. This lead to a world of variation in the engines. Some 'home-made' designs were better than others, but many have survived.

Due to the demand & 'Prestige' attached to showman's engines in recent years a number of engines, mainly road rollers have been converted by preservationists. This practice is causing concern amonst some enthusiasts as in some cases unique examples of some models have been lost. In a few case owners have converted engine back during restoration to their original form.[2]

Famous showmen owners

Although hundreds of showland families operated showmans engines a few are worthy of note.

Anderton & Rowland operated a number of these engines from the early 1900s to the 2nd world war. In 2010 9 of their former engines that survive were brought together again at the Beaulieu Steam Revival along with a Savage Bros lighting set and a fairground organ previously owned by the company.

Pat Collins and family operated well over 25 showman's engines, although predominantly Burrell's he also owned various Fowler's and other makes

Charles Thurston and family operated a large number of engines from both Burrell's and Foster's. A number of their engines have been preserved. Foster's Admiral Beatty and Burrell's Britannia were owned by William Thurston. A unique set of four of Charles Thurston's former engines have been preserved at the Thursford Collection in Norfolk. These are all Burrell's: King Edward VII of 1905, Victory of 1920, Unity and Alexandra

George Thomas Tuby operated a fleet of seven Burrell showman's engines, most of which carried names according to the position of Tuby in the local government. These included Councillor, Alderman, Mayor and the sole survivor Ex-Mayor


The last showman's engine in commercial showland use was in 1958, before this engines were being sold for scrap for next-to-nothing. George Cushing, Founder of the Thursford Collection bought Victory,Alexandra and Unity for around £40 each, (For comparison, a similar engine No. 3865 No. 1 was sold at auction in 2003 for £320,000.) Towards the end of the 1930s engines were simply becoming out-of-date. With the ending of the Second World War came hundreds of cheap and powerful ex-Army lorries replaced the showman's engines, making them obsolete. Although many of these engines were scrapped, a good number of them have survived into preservation. Many now appear at rallies all over the UK, others are in museums such as Thursford, or the Hollycombe Collections.

List of surviving showmans engines

These are engines that were built as showmans originaly or were converted during there Working lives. Note: Modern conversion's are not to be added to this list.

Brown and May


Engine no. Name Date built
Burrell no. 2072 The Masterpiece 1898
Burrell no. 2342 Vanguard 1900
Burrell no. 2351 Ephraim 1901
Burrell no. 2547 Endurance 1903
Burrell no. 2625 Lady pride of England 1903
Burrell no. 2651 Challenger 1904
Burrell no. 2668 Brittania 1904
Burrell no. 2701 Black Prince 1904
Burrell no. 2780 King Edward VIII 1905
Burrell no. 2804 White Rose of York 1906
Burrell no. 2877 His Majesty 1907
Burrell no. 2879 Princess Royal 1907
Burrell no. 2894 Pride of Worcester
Burrell no. 3075 Alexandra 1909
Burrell no. 3090 Fermoy 1909
Burrell no. 3093 Dreadnought 1909
Burrell no. 3103 Queen Alexandra 1909
Burrell no. 3118 Dreadnought 1909
Burrell no. 3159 The Gladiator 1909
Burrell no. 3195 Country Girl 1911
Burrell no. 3200 Unity 1910
Burrell no. 3220 Outlaw 1910
Burrell no. 3285 King George V 1911
Burrell no. 3288 Nancy 1911
Burrell no. 3295 Princess Royal

Clayton & Shuttleworth

Two Showmans style conversions;

  • Clayton & Shuttleworth no. 43173 - Bettys Pride
  • Clayton & Shuttleworth no. 48385 - World Ranger


  • Foden no. 1423 - Storeyteller (ex Traction engine)
  • Foden no. 2104 - Prospector


  • Foster no. 3642 - Maude
  • Foster no. 13200 - Aquitania
  • Foster no. 14253 - Admiral Beatty
  • Foster no. 14446 - The Leader
  • Foster no. 14501 - Victorious
  • Foster no. 14502 - Victory
  • Foster no. 14632 - Success
  • Several more Foster Showmans style steam tractor conversions also exist




  • McLaren no. 1623 - Goliath
  • McLaren no. 1713 - The Banshee (ex crane engine ~ 1970s)


  • Robey no. 41492 - Bathsheba (Showmans tractor conversion ~ 1960s)

Wallis & Steevens

Several showman's style tractor conversions have been created from rollers during the working era and in the preservation era.

References / sources

See also

  • Carousel


  1. Showmans's Road Locomotives (Book) published by the National Traction Engine Club, 1981 Edition
  2. 'The Traction Engine Resister 2008', ISBN 978-946169-05-4 notes converted engines in its list of UK engines in preservation

External links

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